This is going to be a difficult review for me to write. It isn’t because I find serious flaws with Lars Hansen’s The KING speaker system; no, it’s just the opposite—the speaker is so coherent that it is a thing unto itself.
It is a five-driver three-way design, said to extend from the low 20s in Hertz, up to and past the point of good hearing. Its sensitivity is rated at 89dB (referred to the usual specs) and all of its drivers, save the mystery tweeter, are designed, formulated, and manufactured inhouse, at Hansen’s Ontario facility. As you may see, if you stop now and read my interview with Hansen, the aim here was to reduce conventional moving-coil speaker/enclosure colorations to an unprecedented degree, thus allowing more of the sense of music, its timbre, to shine through.
The $55,000 KING is intended to be used in a larger room than I installed it in, since I didn’t wish to surrender my reference speakers in Room 3, at least not for the moment. And, anyway, speakers as large as Infinity’s Reference Standard, the IRS, had coupled more than nicely (and to their designer’s approval) in Music Room 2, where even the largest Maggies of Audio Research vintage found a happy home.
It took considerable care in placement to couple the system to the room in a way that maximized its strengths. We were able to achieve a significantly wide soundstage, with a considerable illusion of soundfield depth, as well as robust response flat down to at least 32Hz. When I say robust response, I mean highly articulated definition of instruments located in the bottom octave (which I define as 20 to 40Hz). And thanks to its twin 289mm woofers, The KING can move air, which lends a sense of bigness when a symphony orchestra plumbs the depths. We could have squeezed out a few more cycles, I suppose, if we had positioned the speaker a bit farther back in the room, where a resonance would have lifted the bass, but also introduced unacceptable boom in the midbass, at about 60Hz or so. As it was, the position we found best was close to what I call the Pearson Rule of Thirds (my rediscovery—folks knew about this in the Thirties), i.e., positioned a third of the way into the room, with each speaker a third of the way from the sidewalls.
Once we wound our way through the set-up blues, we began more than a few rounds of listening, using some of our most cherished compact discs. (We did not use analog in this round of evaluations, which, I might add, is not our last.) We relied quite heavily on the Mercury recording The Composer and his Orchestra, now available from Philips on a four- CD set of Howard Hanson’s music— and specifically the first 15 minutes or so, in which we get a tour of orchestral instruments, placed on the stage as they might be in the hall, with their dynamics faithfully rendered. Then, on to the wondrous JVC XRCD transfer of Zubin Mehta’s recording of Holst’s The Planets, with heavy emphasis on “Mercury” for delicacy of string tone and a fortissimo midway through that can challenge the best electronics, “Saturn” for its ethereal woodwinds, high bells and chimes, and low organ pedal notes, and “Uranus” for a sonic blast, including a sensational upward glissando by the organ that could curl your toes. Also in heavy rotation was the RCA/BMG transfer of Leinsdorf ’s reading of Mahler’s Third (the first movement), a recording that sounds far superior to the two-disc Dynagroove LP version (is that a misspelling for “grove,” the wooden sound?). Here you’ll find subtle and eerie pianissimos, punctuated with rear-stage taps on the big bass drum, and climatic fortissimos like thunder over the mountains.
There were others, as well, including the two Carmina Burana cuts from the Telarc/SACD sampler I produced. In this case, I not only know the sound of Atlanta’s Woodruff Hall but more than a few members of its chorus, so I have a firm reference (and the recording, even in the two-channel layer, is just gorgeous).
Just a brief interruption to let you know what was doing what. We found the resolution of the system so high that we decided to use the Lab 47/Pi tracer CD playback unit, the 04 Burmester linestage, and an all-Nordost cable, interconnect, and power-distribution system.
The first thing that struck me about these speakers was their coherency, which, in this case, made the system sound as if it were a singularity— that is, one thing. Note, I am not saying it is perfect in this regard, nor does it have the seamlessness of, say, a full-range electrostatic, but it is, for a cone/dome hybrid design, an accomplishment. It is also frighteningly revealing.
We found ourselves listening, at the outset, to the amplifiers we had on hand. Meaning: We could identify the colorations and character of each amplifier, some of them more congruent with the gestalt of The KING, even as minor shortcomings stood unmistakably revealed. The Conrad-Johnson Premier 350 suffered most by comparison. Now, I really do have to say, without apology, that taken by itself, and at its (relatively) modest price of just over seven grand, the 350 is, like the Hansen, of one piece. It is almost perfectly coherent throughout its range, and with a distinctive gestalt. It suffers, but not a lot, at the frequency extremes, and I suspect its Passion would not be as obvious with a speaker less revealing than this one (rated, by the way, at 6 ohms impedance). The speaker just adored the Burmester 911 Mk III, whose tonal neutrality, airiness at both frequency extremes, and retrieval of ambience (with almost no audible grain) were greatly to The KING’s liking. It might sound as if I am suggesting an overly threadbare quality. But, no, no. The Burmester is, perhaps, a bit to the yang side (as opposed to the slightly colored yin of the C-J), but that “yang” may simply be a function of its high degree of transparency. You can hear through all the way to the backwall and, seemingly, beyond. (I have not yet divined what went wrong in our experiments with the ASR hybrid amplifier, which worked well when the Burmester 04 was in the system as a linestage, but not in its supposedly optimal setup sans any linestage at all.) However, to my great surprise, what sounded, given the unreality of all reproduced sound from speaker systems, most “alive,” and most nearly “real,” and, particularly throughout the vital mid-frequencies was a new (at least to us) 60-watt single-endedtriode design from Antique Sound Labs, makers of the monoblock Hurricanes I so admire. It’s called the Cadenza DT and from the first playback, I knew I was in the presence of something special. The importer, also a Canadian, Tosh Goka, told a disbelieving me that the Cadenzas would have no problem driving The KINGs, despite the seeming mismatch in power versus sensitivity. And, as they say at revivalists meeting, lo and behold, we couldn’t get it to clip while driving The KINGs (we used the amplifier’s four-ohm tap), even though I suspect that combo would not fare so well in the kind of baronial music room designer Hansen seems to have had in mind. I should add that Hansen, who heard both this and the Burmester electronics at two separate sessions, was seemingly astonished by the Cadenzas.
With the Cadenzas and the Hanson disc, what we could divine before now stood nakedly revealed—that Hanson was taped in an empty hall—and we could tell that because of the way the amplifiers captured each and every ambient cue. This almost took my (metaphysical) breath away because I felt as if I knew this recording from the inside out, and yet there were still levels of information to be revealed. The massed string sound, so sour and threadbare on top, was no longer sour, but rather with the sweetness of a small string ensemble, and the brass… well, another world. And there was a pinpoint degree of focus throughout the orchestral spectrum that I thought rivaled and even surpassed the best of the solidstate stuff. More than that, suddenly the Hansens were exhibiting a kind of continuousness they had not before. (I said the speakers were coherent, but I did not say they sounded “continuous,” which they had not up until the Cadenzas entered the room.) So what is the difference here? I thought, at first, to write that the Cadenzas had a slight liquidity throughout their range. And, mind you, the real thing, coming at you through the air, has that same sort of liquidity, that is, an uninterrupted flow of waves—sound waves. There must be, I have begun to think, a seemingly inaudible, because of the short duration of its time span, interruption in the flow of information, even from the best solid-state gear, to wit, the Burmesters, that is just not there on a brilliantly designed tubed unit. Normally, I would have shrugged off an SET amp as having too much “liquidity,” a most definite coloration which may well arise from excessive second-order harmonics or transformer colorations or even circuit design.
I would have expected these SET units to show up short at the frequency extremes, but they did not. The midbass strings (of, say, the Boston) had a delectable and true-to-life richness, and the top octave was genuinely delicate and open in the way it reproduced both timbre and harmonic overtones. (The Cadenzas were like a higher-power sonic twin to the Wyetech Sapphire I so admire, and can find so wanting in driving most of the speaker systems chez Sea Cliff.)
And so, with the seemingly unlikely Cadenzas, I found another dimension to the performance of this speaker. I confess that more work is to be done here. I must listen to the system with vinyl and with a range of linestages, not to mention some of the latest designs in amplifiers and cables.
The resolution herein is of such an order that differences I would have found difficult to detect (and thus requiring longer and more arduous listening sessions) just aren’t anymore. The KING’s level of coloration is just that much lower than the elements in the system that precede it.
What I can tell you that I think could be done to make the speakers even better is this: I still think the dome tweeter sounds a bit discontinuous with the speakers below it in the enclosure. True, it allows you to hear “into” the uppermost frequencies with a clarity and definition beyond that of any domes I have heard, but it does not approach the diamond tweeter I heard in the Marten Coltranes, nor does it have some of the capabilities of the Heil configuration used in the Burmester B-100s. And, true, it sounds more coherent than un- with the other drivers, but as “a string” (to quote Hansen from the interview) it is not perfectly tuned. And I am wondering about the response in the 40 to 80Hz midbass zone, which does not sound quite as quick and lively as the speaker does elsewhere in its range. And this may be a function of my decision about room placement, because I opted for best soundstage and dynamic contrast response. We shall see.
As Joe E. Brown says in his famous last line in Some Like It Hot, “nobody’s perfect,” and nothing else is either—not even perfect sound forever. But, as I see it from here, The KINGs come closer than almost all of their competition, excluding, just maybe or maybe not, those big, big expensive setups that cost more than a house in the North Carolina mountains. (I have opted not, in this review, to crosscompare the other speakers upon which I have recently reported.) The KINGs certainly set a new standard for vanishingly low coloration from a moving-coil design of my experience and, as such, let us who love the music get closer to the truth.